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Journalist takes new look at 1966 car crash death at Doris Duke's Rough Point

The Dodge Polara station wagon after the crash. (Ed Quigley photo)
The Dodge Polara station wagon after the crash. (Ed Quigley photo)
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Mansions. Mysteries. And, allegedly, murder.

An award-winning journalist with career roots in Newport takes a new look at what's been known for the past 55 years as a tragic accident.

In his new book "Homicide at Rough Point," Peter Lance said he's uncovered evidence a terrible crime was committed in 1966.

Billionairess Doris Duke was not only the richest woman in the United States at the time, but also the third richest woman in the world.

One of her five estates was Rough Point, at the end of Bellevue Avenue in Newport.

"She was so wealthy from the holdings of American Tobacco Company, Alcoa Aluminum, and Duke Energy, that she actually was making $1 million a week on the interest on her money," said author Peter Lance in a recent Zoom interview from California.

Enter Eduardo Tirella.

"Eduardo Tirella was a Renaissance man and a war hero," said Lance. "He was her primary designer, major elements of all five of her estates. She never bought a work of art without him. He was her principal curator, constant companion for seven years."

He came to town that Oct. 7 to give his recommendation that she purchase a work of art from city antique store The Black Cat carved in 1500 A.D., containing the bones of a fourth-century martyred saint.

"These were highly prized artifacts of the wealthy who loved to have a -- it was the notion of the power of money over the divine. Just moments before they were about to leave her estate, they had a -- what we would call in Rhode Island -- a 'wicked fight' after he told her that he was leaving," added Lance.

Leaving for good -- having created sets and designs for Hollywood stars. Tirella was talented and he was moving up.

"He was on the edge of a major new career, and he could not wait to get away from Doris because she paid him a pittance. She was notoriously stingy," said Lance.

He had been warned to be careful by friends back on the West Coast after publicized reports of Duke's stormy breakup with former bandleader Joseph Armand Castro.

Lance said he research shows "she was incredibly controlling and jealous. She had stabbed her common-law husband (Castro) with a butcher knife two-and-a-half years earlier. He sued her for assault. But Doris had so many lawyers and minions that cleaned up after her that she literally had him kidnapped in Hawaii and he eventually renounced the suit. So, she really felt that she could get away with anything."

Heading to the antiques store with Duke, Tirella drove the two-ton rented Dodge Polara station wagon down the long opulent gravel driveway.

He stopped 15-feet from the huge wrought iron gates, that opened inward, to clear their path.

Lance recounted what he said happened next: "Suddenly, she slid behind the wheel. She released the parking brake by hand. She slammed it into gear. She gunned the engine, hit the accelerator, left deep inch-and-a-half gravel marks in the gravel 30 feet back, and just roared forward."

The official report states that Duke crushed Tirella with the car against the gates.

But Lance said his multi-year investigation shows otherwise.

Watch additional segments in this series:

Part 1: Journalist takes new look at 1966 car crash death at Doris Duke's Rough Point

Part 2: Journalist argues death of Doris Duke's friend at Rough Point was no 'unfortunate accident'

Part 3: Journalist alleges cover-up in 1966 death at Doris Duke's Rough Point mansion

Part 4: Journalist claims police helped Doris Duke escape accountability for death at Rough Point

Web Extra: 'NBC 10 Biographies' tells life story of heiress Doris Duke

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